By Shirley Li
April 08, 2019 at 02:48 PM EDT

For Shannon Lee, everything about making Warrior was personal. The new drama series — about a martial artist navigating San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 1800s — is based on an idea her father, screen legend Bruce Lee, pitched Hollywood in 1971. It took 48 years for his treatment to go from typewritten and scribbled-on pages to the small screen.

Here’s how it finally happened.

The Bruce Lee Archive/HBO

Out of the Box

Shannon was 4 years old when her father died, but since the early 2000s she’s led the Bruce Lee Foundation, an organization honoring his life. Around 2000, she says, she stumbled upon Bruce’s original treatment for Warrior, a TV series starring himself as a Chinese martial-arts prodigy named Ah Sahm wandering the West. Studios rejected it — and then released a similar series in 1972 called Kung Fu, but with a whitewashed lead in David Carradine. “I thought, ‘Well, maybe one day we’ll do something with this,’” Shannon, now 49, recalls of discovering and reading her father’s writing. “And then it went right back into the box.” After all, Hollywood’s attitudes around Asian stars needed to evolve first…

Enter Justin Lin

…And it’s a good thing they’ve been doing so. Over the years, Shannon has fielded plenty of offers, but only director Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow, the Fast & Furious franchise) arrived with the right pitch. “Most of the time, people just want to option something from me, and they don’t want my involvement in it,” she explains. “They treat me like a rights holder, as opposed to someone who also has a stake in making sure that the final product is in line with my father’s legacy…. [Justin] said, ‘Would you want to make this in the way that your father wanted it to be made, and obviously cast with Asian actors in the Asian roles?’ I said, ‘I would love nothing more.’” And with that, Lin signed on to executive-produce the project alongside Shannon.

HBO

The Result

Bruce’s notes — from his lists of potential story ideas and sketches (like the one above) to his accounts of the history of San Francisco’s Chinatown — were invaluable to the creation of the Cinemax series, but they required some tweaking to fit the mold of modern TV storytelling. “[The treatment] was written in the style of 1970s episodic television, which was mostly stand-alone episodes. It was this monk that wandered around, and every episode he encountered some bully,” Shannon says. “That style of television doesn’t really work anymore.” Instead, Warrior follows a serialized, overarching story about Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji from The Innocents) as he immigrates to San Francisco and becomes embroiled in the violent Tong Wars of Chinatown. Hired as a “hatchet man” (a killer, essentially), he bloodies his hands quickly in his new home.

The change doesn’t bother Shannon; seeing Bruce’s idea finally reach the small screen is enough. “My father had never been given any validation as a creative person, as a person who could come up with his own ideas,” she explains. “In a way, we’re righting a wrong.”

Warrior airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on Cinemax.

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